Tradition and Modernization Kathakali – Sadanam Bhasi

What changes have occurred in Kathakali through innovations over the past few years, and how have these changes influenced the continued growth of this art form? Do these changes impact the art form or contribute to its aesthetic development?

Changes have occurred differently over time and among different artists. For instance, renowned names like Kunju Nair, Kumaran Nair, and Ramankutty Nair belong to the disciple lineage of Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, but each of them had their unique style of presentation. While there were certain similarities in their approaches, they each introduced distinct changes driven by their creativity.

Ravunni Menon Ashan himself made significant codifications to Kathakali. In my view, after receiving training at Kodungallur Kalari, he introduced certain changes to Kathakali abhinaya, which marked a noteworthy shift in the journey of Kathakali.

Similarly, my Guru Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair Ashan was highly innovative in his approach. Simultaneously, he was meticulous about following certain principles, such as maintaining the traditional ‘pathikaalam’ before progressing to ‘randam kaalam’ and preserving the pacing. Even today, at Sadanan Kalari, we continue to follow the same traditional pattern. Nowadays, there’s a trend among performers and spectators to focus on speed, which, in my opinion, is unnecessary. Ashan had received training in various art forms and incorporated different elements into the aesthetics of Kathakali, such as certain dance movements in padams and movement patterns of ‘Kathi Veshas.’ However, it’s crucial to note that none of these changes were mere adaptations. He was a visionary who always operated within the framework of Kathakali, and all his modifications were enhancements of the art form’s aesthetic identity. Such transformations are assets to the art form.

I’ve been observing certain trends lately that are concerning. For instance, the practice of simply removing one character from a traditional play is not acceptable, as it deprives one artist from an opportunity to perform. Additionally, some minor changes made by one artist during a performance, perhaps based on a specific day or platform, can lead to a ripple effect where many others follow suit in the future.

I’ve noticed that certain ‘eda shlokas’ and ‘Purappadu’ have been omitted. In the play ‘Lavanasura Vadham,’ the ‘Asuras’ traditionally had ‘iratti in moonnu kaalam,’ but these days, artists are not including it. Concepts like ‘Naalu nokku’ and ‘Moonnu nokku purappadu’ are becoming unfamiliar to today’s performers. Moreover, after a ‘krithyam,’ the portion with ‘Vaku chavittai’ is no longer seen, largely because some ‘Kalaris’ are neglecting these aspects. This trend risks the gradual erasure of these traditions from the memory of both performers and spectators, which is not in the best interest of the art form.

Today’s artists are not limited to the practices of their own ‘Kalari.’ They are starting to incorporate elements from other ‘Kalaris’ into their performances, which can enhance the theatrical beauty of the art. However, it’s essential that proper training and adherence to the rules are maintained. Unfortunately, these days, changes initiated by individual artists and new stories are not establishing themselves as traditions; they come and go. The last play that seemed to be wholeheartedly accepted was ‘Karnashapadham.’ Since then, new plays have appeared and faded away without leaving a lasting impact.

What were the changes and modifications that have occurred as your contribution in this field? Similarly, what do you think will continue to evolve without change in this art form?

In many respects, Kumaran Nayar Ashan, who had been the guardian of tradition and convention, brought significant changes. However, he embraced both change and positive developments, displaying a keen eye for everything related to his field. He and his Kalari serve as my inspiration for creative endeavors.

I always emphasize the movement systems. In ‘Kalasham,’ I strive to adapt it to my body. Similarly, if a particular dance pattern suits the storyline, I incorporate it. My first creative experiment that found acceptance among the audience was ‘Darika Vadham.’ My portrayal of ‘Kaali Vesham’ consistently brought me satisfaction and enthusiastic applause, which motivated me to undertake ‘Darika Vadham’ with Kali as the central character.

I consider myself fortunate to have participated in new choreographies, especially by Sadanam Harikumar, a knowledgeable figure in all aspects of Kathakali. Some noteworthy examples include ‘Yudhavattam’ of Abhimanyu in four different ‘Kalams,’ Karnaparvvam ‘Kalashams’ in ‘Panjari,’ and ‘Yudhavattam’ in Manikanda Charitham. I’ve also ventured into creating my own choreographies with new ‘Aattakathas.’

I’d like to highlight another aspect that I find overwhelming, which is the excessive use of ‘Lokadharmi’ in certain characters such as Mannan, Mannathi, Ashari, and ‘Chuvanna Thaadi Veshangal.’ Striving for perfection in ‘hastha usage,’ ‘Kalasham,’ and other elements is of utmost importance. An artist should not rely solely on visual appeal; the synergy with other actors and supporting artistes is equally significant.

Are those who accept change or seek something new more receptive to Rasikas, or is it the traditionalists who Rasikas require today?

Rasikas, or art enthusiasts, come in various forms. There are some critics who simply critiques, and enthusiasts who over praise. In the past, there were connoisseurs with significant expertise, but their numbers have dwindled today. Some times Each critic evaluates and appreciates certain styme and Kalari based on their individual preferences and interests.

It’s essential to acknowledge Rasikas who genuinely appreciate the art and offer constructive criticism for the development of both the art form and the artists. Personally, I value certain preferences from Rasikas that I find worthwhile. However, I firmly believe that the unnecessary editing and exaggerations that have crept into Kathakali, are often due to unwanted interference from connoisseurs, which should not be encouraged excessively. While their tastes should be considered, there must be limits to their influence.

When new narratives enter to Kathakali, what exactly deserves special attention?

I have had the privilege of participating in several new choreographies, particularly those led by Sadanam Harikumar. He is a visionary and an expert in all facets of Kathakali, possessing knowledge of music, abhinaya, vesham, thalam, conventions, visual aesthetics, and more. These qualities are essential when embarking on new stories.

When preparing ‘Attakathas’, it’s crucial to consider all these aspects and ensure they are suitable for presentation. It’s not merely a matter of composing a poem based on a story. Some writers collaborate with artists, seeking their input, which is also a commendable approach, especially if one is not well-versed in all aspects of Kathakali. An example of this is ‘Krishna Leela’ by Dr. Venugopal.

While preserving traditional practices, what should young artists pay attention to when embracing changes that bring new innovations?

There are artists who readily embrace change and welcome modifications. Upon completing their educational journey, they develop an awareness that they now must sustain themselves outside the academic sphere. This realization encourages them to expand their horizons and consider new avenues. They need to identify their strengths and explore how they can contribute to the field. A profound understanding of these aspects, combined with a solid foundation of rigorous training, enables an artist to adapt to innovations in their art form.

In today’s context, many Rasikas are dedicated to nurturing young talent, and numerous opportunities abound. However, it’s crucial to follow the proper progression path on stage. Starting with Kuttitharam, then moving to Idatharam, and eventually reaching Adyavasanam is essential. Major ‘Veshams’ require a certain level of experience and maturity. Cholliyatta Kalari provides an excellent foundation, and it’s imperative to practice diligently. Only through consistent and disciplined practice can one become a proficient performer on the stage. Extensive practice sessions, such as ‘chaadi Soochikkirikkal,’ afternoon sessions dedicated to ‘Ilakiyattam,’ and late evening sessions focused on ‘Mudra,’ are essential for shaping a skilled performer. Both disciples and Ashans should prioritize these practices without compromise to ensure the emergence of a talented generation of performers.

Understanding the possibilities of one’s own body is very important to perform certain charecters in Kathakali, isn’t it? However, don’t we often see a tendency, especially among young actors, to blindly imitate the guru or other experienced artists, ignoring the uniqueness of their own bodies? What is your opinion on this?

Such tendencies are quite common today, where individuals either blindly imitate their guru or seasoned costume designers. However, it’s essential to have a deep understanding of our own bodies. It’s natural to be influenced by one’s guru after years of training, but one must also be aware of the possibilities and limitations of their own body.

For example, if Gopi Ashaan uses four ‘Uthareeyam’ (upper garments), it may not be suitable for someone with a stout body. My Guru was an expert in all aspects of Kathakali, but our body types differ. Therefore, I need to make adjustments in movement patterns and certain modifications in costume usage to suit my body.  Details like hand positions, handling costumes, and nuances in specific movements require careful attention and extensive training to master. The artists who guide and mentor others must also be committed to this cause.

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